Obama Supreme Court pick Sotomayor clears panel

WASHINGTON Tue Jul 28, 2009 1:51pm EDT

1 of 7. Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor smiles while answering questions during her fourth and final day of testimony at her U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings as her mother Celina Sotomayor listens on Capitol Hill, July 16, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed by the Senate Judiciary committee on Tuesday, all but ensuring she will become the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. high court.

The panel voted 13 to 6 to confirm Sotomayor even though several committee members complained the approval process prevented her from stating her true views on controversial issues.

Amid concerns of conservatives that Sotomayor might be a "judicial activist," just one Republican joined all 12 Democrats to confirm the 55-year-old who has been a federal judge for 17 years.

The Democratic-controlled full Senate seems certain to give Sotomayor its final approval before beginning a month-long recess on August 7 so she can join the nine-member court before it begins a special September session.

She is not expected to change the court's ideological balance, replacing retiring Justice David Souter as one of four liberals who face five conservatives led by Chief Justice John Roberts.

Sotomayor was Obama's first Supreme Court nominee. With three of the other eight justices in their 70s and John Paul Stevens at 89, Obama might have a chance to make more of the lifetime appointments.

"Judge Sotomayor is well qualified. She has the highest rating by the American Bar Association," said committee chairman Patrick Leahy. "She has administered justice without favoring one group of persons over another."

Six of the committee's Republicans disagreed, saying they feared her rulings might be biased. They focused on some of her speeches in which she appeared to say that ethnicity and gender could play a role in judicial decisions.

"In speech after speech, year after year, Judge Sotomayor set forth a fully formed ... judicial philosophy that conflicts with the great American tradition of blind justice and fidelity to the law as written," said Senator Jeff Sessions, the senior Republican on the committee.

CAUTIOUS ANSWERS

Several senators questioned the value of the hearing process since judicial nominees often deflect questions about divisive issues like abortion, gun rights and gay marriage.

Sotomayor was cautious about controversial topics, saying it was not appropriate as they might come before her on the Supreme Court.

Conservatives had voiced fears that Sotomayor -- the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in the Bronx borough of New York and educated at Princeton and Yale --- was a "judicial activist" eager to imprint the high court with Obama's liberal agenda.

But in her four days of testimony, Sotomayor calmly parried Republican attempts to depict her as too biased for the job.

Senator Lindsey Graham was the only Republican to vote for Sotomayor and he urged Republicans look at qualifications -- not just that she was chosen by a Democratic president.

"She's of good character ... she was extremely well qualified," said Graham, noting that Sotomayor was "left of center but certainly in the mainstream."

"She can be no worse than Souter," he said. Souter was nominated by former Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1990 but proved to be far more liberal than expected.

"There is not going to be a major shift in the balance of power here," Graham said. "I have not seen this 'activist' that we all dread."

If confirmed, Sotomayor would be only the third woman ever to serve on the court.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn and Steve Holland, editing by Vicki Allen)

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